Everywhere I go in the course of my work with complex children and families, I find schools and children and families and staff under huge pressure, delivering curriculum that are becoming more and more preset.
What I hear over and over again is that the curriculum has become so super-charged that the times that used to be available in the day and week for just easing off pressure and taking a step back to explore a wider field have become more and more rare. So, what has an understanding of psychology got to tell us about this situation and about it's likely impact on child mental health and educational outcomes?
One really important well-known graph that is incredibly important in understanding child and adult mental health and well-being, and educational outcomes is the Yerkes-Dodson (1908) arousal performance curve. According to many studies, and this well recognised graph, human beings perform best if there is a certain amount of heightened arousal around in the context that evokes and is associated with curiosity and focus. In the face of stimuli that evoke moderate curiosity and excitement and a sense of opportunity, human beings - children and adults - pay attention and focus much better than in the face of stimuli which evoke little or any curiosity or need to pay attention. With alertness, engagement and motivation to perform, we see children and adults producing better results than when they are bored and uninterested.
However, the Yerkes Dodson graph also shows us that too MUCH arousal or anxiety leads to very significant deteriorations in performance. This is important. Both ends of this Yerkes-Dodson curve are important to making sense of what is happening in our schools.
My observation is that the relentless pressure on adults in our schools is being transferred to our children and it is complex children where the crushing or explosive impact of these pressures are observed most. Most concerning is the situation when teachers find that the complex child is a barrier to them being able to deliver the results that are being expected of them.
Unless the teacher, and usually also their head teacher, is confident and able to resist and stand up to the Ofsted-driven pressures upon them, the child and adult in the classroom are placed in an impossible pressure cooker situation. What we find too often rather than collaboration and curiosity is a battle ground between adult and child where the adults feel they must MAKE the child learn, and the child's role becomes too often one of deeply reluctant co-operation or active resistance.
Not long ago I was asked to observe a young 9 year old with diagnosed learning difficulties - probably due to foetal alcohol syndrome - the aim was to help think about his future educational options. He was in Year 5 but was managing work appropriate to a Y2 child. I observed this child working with a TA who was trying to teach him fractions, counting beads and using worksheets. The child had questions of football on his mind, and what was going to happen at playtime because a friend had been sent home. 40 mins later, the exasperated TA lamented - "his concentration is really no good today". For my part, I wondered just how many times people had tried to teach him about fractions - and how many more times they were going to continue to try to do so on his journey through our school system .
The point was, fractions were not interesting to him in that moment - certainly not in the format being presented - yet adults were feeling obliged to keep working at it, because their job was to hit targets. I wondered how many more adults would have to spend a frustrating time trying to teach him something that was not connected to what he wanted to learn.
As I heard another headteacher talking about the numbers of staff who were disengaging and excessively stressed, I also wondered about the impact on the sense of Self of both child and adult of this very unsatisfactory set up. I heard that in a matter of a few months, the child I had been observing, had gone from being a child who was desperate to please to a child who had become disengaged and cocky and 'strutting his stuff'.
Frankly though, where do you go, and how do you behave when you start to realise that what is being offered to you in school involves endless hours doing things you are heartily fed up of doing? In such a situation, thinking about football and playing up the teacher sounds quite an entertaining option, doesn't it? So, does this child with challenging behaviour have a mental health problem? I think he is on his way there.
I wonder when it will become accepted that so many top down instructions do not bring out the best in our teachers nor in our young people?
I wonder when enough teachers will have the energy at the end of the day to speak up about situations that too many know cannot be right. Is there enough space to engage curiosity and enhance motivation in your school day? How do you think these issues are related to child mental health? If you are interested in reading more about these issues, why not Click here to sign up for the I Matter Monthly Digest Newsletter
So you know well the extraordinary investment of time, energy and finances that is currently invested in tracking children's progress.
But what if we were missing something REALLY important?
I think we are.
We have huge concerns about rising problems of child mental health and concerns to raise educational outcomes, with huge numbers of adults being driven to monitor more and more details of what children are doing.
But believe it or not this massive industry is are not tracking the foundations of healthy child development.
So, with the support of health visitors and health services, parents of newborns through to school age are given some support - dwindling - to monitor their child's progress through developmental milestones.
Then, however, when children arrive in the Early Years Foundation Stage, the detailed tracking of the strands of child development reduces dramatically. Soon after, when the child transfers to Reception and to Key Stage 1, the tracking of a child's acquisition of key development milestones abruptly stops, to be replaced with an exclusive focus on the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills. For all but the child with the most severe difficulties, this is regardless of whether the child has mastered the steps necessary to thrive in school or not.
It's extraordinary, but it's true.
We stop systematic tracking and we stop paying attention to such important issues as the child's attention skills, or their fine motor skills or their ability to understand and manage emotions, or their ability to understand another person.
We stop paying attention to parental confidence or parental understanding of what children need. And, because we insist that teachers pay so much attention to the acquisition of literacy and numeracy we stop asking teachers to learn and be mindful of how children develop.
We fail to teach our teachers that children learn best in the context of relationships
And then we appear surprised that children seem to be struggling...
Let me get this clear, I am not a fan of the obsessive level of target tracking that we have today. It seems to mean adults are becoming less and less able to see the real needs of the children sat in front of them, but it would help perhaps if we could became aware of what is not being tracked that is of huge importance to the rest...
Our Action Research Group set off this week to explore the results of checking out the progress of some older children using tools that are usually used to assess progress in the Early Years Foundation Stage. What do you think they will find?
If you want to hear more about our learning why not request to join the I Matter - Network on Linked In or on look out for updates on Twitter. Or, just get in touch by emailing: email@example.com
What is the impact of a gap between developmental and chronological age on educational and mental health outcomes? Our Action Research Group
January 2015: The day to day impact of child development on outcomes is the important question that our Action Research group is setting out to explore. We had our first session on Monday and I am very excited that we have got going. We are 8 practising professionals from education and children's services. Our goal is to make space over the next 6 months to think about what we are seeing in our settings.
Because when it comes to outcomes, child development is the elephant - no, the mammoth - in the room. We live in an era in which there has been a massive collective investment of time and financial resources in, tracking outcomes in educational and mental health practice, but where is child development? What is the explanation for the collective blindness about this critical issue?
How is it that we track so much in so much detail in our classrooms and services to do with literacy and numeracy, but still pay so little attention to the issues that have potentially the most powerful impact? I think the problem is a lack of robust theoretical foundations, and consequently a lack of training in the big picture of what is important, combined with too much top down pressure to 'do what you are told', rather than observe what you are seeing and respond appropriately. If you want to produce good results from tracking, you need to be sure you know WHY you are tracking something, not just WHAT you are tracking
In my view, child development is not just about how to take a child from being able to do addition to being able to do long-division. Child development is not just about Piaget and concrete and abstract thinking. Child development is about how children's brains - and adult brains - start to function in the context of relationships and in the context of experiences. Unfortunately, aside from a few throw away references, there is a frankly a gross lack of collective understanding about child development in our training systems for teachers, social workers, medics, inspectors and politicians. No wonder parents are confused.
Children are not small adults. They are emerging in their abilities to make sense of a complex world. Their capacities to make sense of the world, and to make sense of themselves and others, are not given at birth, they need to be nurtured and awakened. This is a process that takes a lot of time. With lack of care and sensitivity, a child's abilities to make sense of Self and Other and the World can be profoundly impacted, delayed and sometimes damaged. So if we want to understand violence, and disengagement and gangs, and any number of other social challenges, we need to understand child development.
Fortunately in child development we also have very strong foundations for robust interventions. And fortunately, if we decide to respect the hierarchical nature of child development, this can provide us with a map and a guide about what we need to do to address the issues we most care about.
But we need to stop and be willing to watch and willing to learn. This makes all the difference.
If you want to hear more about our learning why not request to join the I Matter - Network on Linked In or on look out for updates on Twitter. Or, just get in touch by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Cathy Betoin
Dr Cathy Betoin
The I Matter Prof Blog:
How do we improve the educational and mental health outcomes of our children?
My Favourite sites